African American and Radio - Overview Part 3
By Donna L. Halper
Assistant Professor of Communication
©2002. Donna L. Halper, Boston, Massachusetts
In the early 40s, even the south was slowly beginning to have more black talent on the air. Blues had become very popular, and King Biscuit Flour decided to sponsor a radio show which featured two bluesmen-- Rice Miller (who began calling himself "Sonny Boy Williamson") and Robert Junior Lockwood. A white-owned station in Helena AR, KFFA, began airing the show, "King Biscuit Time," in 1941. Sales of the flour took off, and the show itself became a sensation. Soon, other southern stations began hiring black bluesmen, a trend that continued throughout the 40s. But other social changes were on the horizon in the 40s. When World War II broke out, the fact that the military was still segregated became a bone of contention for leaders in the black community. Since radio had a public service obligation, some distinguished black educators felt the subject was a good one for the talk shows; they went to both NBC and CBS with proposals for public service shows about discrimination and the unfair treatment of blacks in the military, but the networks were very reticent to air such controversial material, insisting that any shows about black people include mostly popular music by black artists. As mentioned earlier, network executives shunned anything that might potentially stir up controversy. In her 1937 book "Not To Be Broadcast," Ruth Brindze exposed how the networks' fear of alienating southern sponsors and affiliates even affected how news was done. She noted that the networks did not allow the word "lynching" to be mentioned even when black people were in fact being lynched; the term "race riot" was also forbidden. It was not until 1943 that the National Urban League, one of many organizations which had advocated for more public service programs about black achievements in America, was able to broadcast a tribute to black women, who, for far too long, had been depicted in the popular culture in the most menial roles. The Urban League felt it was time for the nation to learn about some of the black women who had made a difference in the history of America. The radio special they created was written by Ann Tanneyhill, a young black woman who had graduated from Simmons College in Boston and who had expertise in publicity as well as vocational counseling. "Heroines in Bronze" was perhaps the first program on a major network (CBS aired it in March of 1943) to focus on black women workers. The first part of the show featured vignettes about three heroines of the past-- Phillis Whitley, Soujourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. The show then moved into its segment on the black woman today, which included a speech by the noted educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who had been an advisor to President Roosevelt. The show then went into live interviews with black women who had obtained war jobs: a radio technician, a flight training instructor, a woman working with the Red Cross. Each discussed her work and commented on how although her training was the same as a white woman's, yet black women were not given the same respect or the same opportunities. The show had no singing and dancing, no comedy skits, and the music was limited to inspirational songs. The content was thought-provoking, asking white listeners to imagine what life must be like for black women, who were doubly discriminated against in modern society, because of their race as well as their gender. But unfortunately, despite excellent reviews and fan mail from both white and black listeners, CBS evidently felt it had done its one show on black women's problems. No follow up ever aired, despite Miss Tanneyhill's repeated efforts to get more shows produced. Meanwhile, the few public affairs programs that did address controversial issues, such as the well-respected "America's Town Meeting of the Air" aired several discussions of the "race problem" in the mid-40s, but no black women were ever asked to be on the panel of guests. In fact, when the network public affairs shows first discussed the race question, they did not even have black men on the panel; it was considered quite controversial the first time a black panelist was invited.
But the 40s were bringing more of a black presence to the airwaves: in Chicago, Al Benson began his radio career on WGES in 1943; before going on to become a famous disc jockey, he first did some dramatic roles locally (as his competitor Jack Cooper had also done); network soap operas still had few black characters, however, nor were black voices welcomed on network commercials. But musicians like Count Basie continued to be popular and vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald kept having hit records. Several cities with jazz shows let the performers do their own announcing, or hired former musicians as master of ceremonies. In San Francisco, KSAN had a black announcer, Joshua "Lucky" Rhinelander, on the air in the fall of 1942; he was an expert on black dance music and knew most of the orchestra leaders and musicians in the Bay Area. And in Boston, jazz pianist William "Sabby" Lewis, who had performed regularly with his group on WOR in New York during the mid-40s, was on Boston's WBMS in the late 40s. In New York City, performances of the respected American Negro Theater (featuring Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, Ossie Davis and others) were aired over WNEW in the mid-40s. Some of the religious shows, such as "The Eternal Light" on NBC used black actors, and "Wings over Jordan" on CBS had a gospel choir and various black speakers, who gave inspirational talks. Even Ebony magazine concluded in an article called "Radio and Race" in early 1946 that while there was still a way to go in eliminating all the stereotypes (the critic named "Amos 'n' Andy" and "The Great Gildersleeve" as two shows which persisted in demeaning people of color), more and more programs were treating black characters with respect. The clichéd jokes about black men with their razor blades and dice were heard less frequently, and not all black female characters were mammies. Ebony felt some shows had made real progress in giving black actors and performers greater opportunity, and encouraged the industry to keep moving in the right direction.
But it was musically that the changes on radio became most evident during the 40s. In addition to the blues shows on some white Southern stations, more white announcers were doing record shows featuring mainly black artists. WLAC in Nashville did especially well with this strategy when "Hoss" Allen, Gene Nobles, and "John R" began adding in more black music late at night; they got such positive response from listeners that record stores began using radio to sell "race records" by mail order. On the west coast, another white announcer, Hunter Hancock (who began his show with the sound of a bugle) sought out the best black records (mostly what was called "rhythm and blues") and played them throughout the mid 40s on KFVD in Los Angeles, also with excellent response. Then, in October 1948, Bert Ferguson and John Pepper, the white owners of WDIA in Memphis, put together the first all-black format, with black music played by black announcers and run by a black program director (Nat D. Williams, who had been a teacher and concert promoter prior to being on the air); black radio was an idea whose time had finally come. WDIA, "The Mother Station of the Negroes," featured such stars as B.B. King and Rufus Thomas, a women's show aimed at black middle-class women, and public service programs that appealed to the black community. It also had one of the first high-profile women d.j.'s, Martha Jean "the Queen" Steinberg, an African-American woman who had married a white jazz musician, raised five kids, and decided she wanted to be on the radio-- but not in the traditional "women's show" genre. Martha Jean wanted to play the hits, and despite some initial opposition from those in management who didn't think the audience would accept a woman d.j., she became so popular that a Detroit station, WCHB, hired her away. (In Detroit, she went on to a very successful career at WJLB-FM, where during the riots in the summer of 1967, she was a calming and credible voice for peace.) As for WDIA, although it launched the careers of a number of black announcers, it had a policy typical of many black stations run by white owners. Like many black stations run by white owners, it tried to avoid controversy and shunned talk or music that might be perceived as too radical. As Nat D. Williams observed, "WDIA had to appeal to black audiences and at the same time not offend white audiences." Still, the fact that WDIA existed and was successful made a very powerful statement, and led to other stations taking up the black format.